School District Consolidation: The Supreme Managed Benefit State

by John McClaughry

The front page of the Rutland Herald of June 18, 1975 featured the headline “State Education Plans: Eight School Districts”. The story and accompanying map described the plan discussed at the State Board of Education meeting the previous day.

The mega-district school consolidation plan actually dated to 1964, when Gov. Phil Hoff proposed consolidating to 24 school districts, a proposal that went nowhere in the Republican-controlled legislature.

In 1987 a school governance commission, created by Gov. Madeleine Kunin and co-chaired by the same Phil Hoff, proposed 65 unified school districts. The proposal aroused such an outcry that Gov. Kunin was forced to disavow it a week before it was to be made public. The fact that the report was ridiculously titled “Strengthening Local Control” didn’t improve its reception.

In 2009 the state Board of Education produced a 112-page “Transformation Policy” report that made another run at the consolidation objective. It recommended that “By July 2012, Vermont’s PK-12 public education system is constituted into 12 to 24 education districts. Each education district shall be governed by a single district board.” Then-Commissioner (now Secretary) Armando Vilaseca was an active cheerleader for the report’s recommendations.

The 2010 legislature wrangled at some length over consolidation proposals. Unwilling to supply the Commissioner with the hammer to force consolidation, it finally produced Act 153, providing modest incentives for “voluntary school district mergers”. To date, only one “regional education district” has been formed – Mountain Towns RED (Londonderry, Peru, Landgrove, Weston, Flood Brook).

In a final appearance before the House Education Committee a month ago (he is departing next month), Vilaseca said that pooling resources in newly merged districts (REDs) would give “the biggest bang for the buck” in education spending: “We don’t need 272 school districts. Do we need 63 superintendents in the state of Vermont? Can 24 be the number? Can 22 be the number? That’s where I think we should start.”

A committee member inquired whether Vilaseca thought regionalization ought to legislatively mandated. Vilaseca replied that school board members and superintendents tell him “we’ll never do this ourselves. There has to be some sort of hammer.” After the session Vilaseca told Alicia Freese of Vtdigger that “After seven or eight years, if the districts haven’t joined together, then the state will come in.”

From the context, and from his long support of forceful control from Montpelier, it’s clear that when Vilaseca says “the state will come in”, it does not mean that the State will hand out incentives and hope for the best. It means the Agency of Education will work its will, parents, students, teachers, and school board members will be told to sit down and shut up, and taxpayers will be told to pay.

In a political climate always favorable to more centralization, more (supposed) administrative efficiency, and far greater power for gubernatorial appointees, the legislature is likely to face increasing pressure to comply.

In former days this would have been recognized as the Soviet command-and-control model, a model also currently favored by Gov. Shumlin for his single payer health care system. Such a model can, admittedly, construct the Pyramids, build an atomic bomb, and put a man on the moon. What it can’t do is acceptably direct students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members to carry out the Leader’s orders, without crushing Vermont’s tradition of local self-government.

There is an attractive alternative to “One Big School System”. It’s based on parental choice and provider competition, among locally-governed public schools, charter schools, independent schools, and alternative educational programs.

Vermonters in 90 tuition towns have made that alternative work since 1869. There was never a better time to expand it to the others. If we don’t, we’ll get the Supreme Managed Benefit State where, to borrow from the Green Mountain Care law, the Ministry of Education will mandate for all children “the appropriate education at the appropriate time in the appropriate setting.”

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (